A Samaritan Passover — And What It Means To You.

At the Passover Seder we use many visual cues to try and reenact the story of the Exodus. The Bitter Herbs remind us of the tears of slavery, the haroset resembles the mortar of the bricks, the Shank bone of the sacrificial lamb, and the matzah of the haste with which we departed from Egypt. 
 My son asked me this year, why we don’t eat lamb at the Seder, a question I have often pondered. He researched and found that among Sephardim eating lamb at the Seder is very common. Apparently, Ashkenazim do not eat lamb because eating one may not eat the actual Passover offering and if others see a Jew eating lamb on Passover they may believe that he is transgressing. However, among Sephardim, eating lamb on Passover is very common.

But there is one group — the Samaritans — that go even further. They actually reenact the ritual of animal sacrifice. On the eve of Passover, the whole community gathers and the head of each household, dressed in white, slaughters a lamb. They take the blood and spread it on their doorposts so that God may “Passover” their homes and then proceed to a holiday meal with lamb as the main course.

Here is an interesting news clip from British TV made in 1940 about this practice. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ylgiTopM9Jc

So who exactly are these Samaritans? They claim descent from Abraham, specifically the Tribes of Ephraim and Menashe. After the death of Solomon, the Jews divided into two kingdoms. The northern Kingdom known as Israel consisting of the ten northern tribes and Judah followed only by Judah and Benjamin. The Israelites rejected Jerusalem as the site of the Temple, choosing instead Mt Gerizim outside of modern day Nabulus.

The Israelite Kingdom was conquered by the Assyrians in 722 and, according to the Book of Kings, the Northern Tribes were dispersed to modern day Afghanistan. However, apparently some either escaped to the Southern Kingdom of Judaea or managed to avoid deportation.

Later the Jews of Judaea were conquered by Babylonia and sent there as slaves. But after 50 years, Cyrus the Great permitted the Jews to return. When they did, we learn from the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, that the Samaritans were there and powerful. They opposed Jewish efforts to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and rededicate a Temple there. The schism between the Samaritans and Judeans became intense. The Samaritans built their own Temple on the Top of Mt. Gerizim around the same time the Jews rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem. You can see the remarkable similarity in lay out to the footprint of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

Gerezim
Jerusalem

The rivalry between these two peoples was intense. Judeans denied any common ancestry with the Samaritans and saw the Temple on Mt Gerizim as an affront to the sanctity of Jerusalem. In approximately 120 BCE, John Hyrcanus, the first Maccabean ruler over an independent Judaea, conquered Samaria and burnt the Temple atop Mt. Gerizim. During the next 200 years, Samaria was dominated by Judaea, and Samaritans were viewed with suspicion by most of the population (hence the story of the Good Samaritan in the New Testament).

However, after the Bar Kochba revolt Jews were banished from Judaea and Samaria paving the way for the Golden Age of Samaria from approximately 135 CE to 350 CE. During this time, many Roman coins bear witness to the beautiful Temple atop Mt. Gerizim.

In the beginning of the fourth century, Babba Rabba became the Samaritan High Priest. He acted as an independent ruler free of any outside influence. He is credited with creating many of the rituals and most of the liturgy still used by the surviving remnant. However, in 324, his forces were defeated by Constantine and he was taken to Constantinople and executed. Like the defeat of Judaea, Rome celebrated by minting a coin with the caption Samrta Devicta (Samaria is defeated).

However, just like Jews after the destruction of the Temple, this defeat was not the end of the matter for the Samaritans. While there was relative quiet between 324 and 470, under the rule of Zeno, tensions grew between the Christians living at the foot of Mt. Gerizim and the Samaritans. Because Mt. Gerizim is mentioned in the Old Testament, Christians felt entitled to build a church in the same vicinity as the Samaritan Temple. Between 474 and 578 there would be four rebellions, each one put down with more vehemence than the last. In some of these rebellions, the Samaritans were joined by Jews who continued to dream of rebuilding their own Tempe in Jerusalem.

By the end of the last rebellion, the Samaritan population was decimated to just a couple of thousand. When Islam spread to the area, they were treated as People of the Book and not forced to convert. They became an insular isolated community ignored by the Jewish population in Palestine and tolerated by the ruling Muslim authority. By the time Israel was established in 1948, the total number of the Samaritans was estimated to be under 500. Over the last 70 years, they have doubled in size.

One final note is in order. The video depicting the Samaritan Passover rites is very difficult to watch. It seems primitive and totally disconnected to the Judaism practiced by most Jews in America and probably around the world. However, there is a strong movement in Israel today — supported in large part by many of the most fervent supporters of the settlements, to recreate the Third Temple in Jerusalem.

One of these groups has produced a video showing a live reenactment of how we will celebrate Passover when the Temple is rebuilt. hhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5kgbRusmqjs

If watching a small cult practicing animal sacrifice is disturbing, the thought that in the minds of a small but growing minority of religious Jews the goal is the reinstitution of animal sacrifice is desirable beyond words. However, the Group sponsoring this video has over 19,000 subscribers. Movements like this are very much connected to some of the extremists within the Settler movement. But even for many “mainstream” religious Jews living in the territories, the desire to rebuild a Third Temple is very real and burns deep. Indeed, the settler movement was created by religious Jews who sincerely believe that settling the west bank is an essential step towards the achieving the Third Temple and bringing about the coming of the Messiach.

One can make many arguments pro and con on the settlements and how Israel should respond to the current situation. However, for a growing number of Jews, the question of settlements is not, ultimately, about security. It is about fulfilling God’s desire which means not only settling the entire land of Israel, but also reinstating the Temple cult and many other aspects of Second Temple Judaism that would horrify many secular Jews.

Amerian Jews are often told that they should stay silent or simply support the position of the government of ISrael becuase, after all, we don’t live there and won’t ultimately have to pay the price for a “wrong” decision. However, this perspective overlooks that the debate over the settlements involves much more than just territory. It goes to the question of how to shape the future of Judaism for the next mellenium. Respectfully, that is a question every Jew who idenfities as such should be free to speak out and be heard.

Moadim L’Simcha!